Pensions Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 22nd April 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions 9:31 am, 22nd April 2004

I beg to move,

That the Order of the Committee of 9th March 2004, as amended by the Orders of the Committee of 16th March 2004, be further amended by the substitution of the following Table for the Table referred to in paragraphs (2), (3) and (4) of the Order of 9th March—

TABLE
Sitting Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings
22nd April (9.30 am) Clauses 224 to 242, Schedule 11, Clause 243, Schedule 12, Clauses 244 to 248; remaining New Clauses, New Schedules and remaining proceedings on the Bill (so far as not previously concluded).
22nd April (2.00 pm) Clauses 224 to 242, Schedule 11, Clause 243, Schedule 12, Clauses 244 to 248; remaining New Clauses, New Schedules and remaining proceedings on the Bill (so far as not previously concluded).
27th April (9.30 am) Clauses 224 to 242, Schedule 11, Clause 243, Schedule 12, Clauses 244 to 248; remaining New Clauses, New Schedules and remaining proceedings on the Bill (so far as not previously concluded).
27th April (2.30 pm) Clauses 224 to 242, Schedule 11, Clause 243, Schedule 12, Clauses 244 to 248; remaining New Clauses, New Schedules and remaining proceedings on the Bill (so far as not previously concluded).
29th April (9.30 am) Clauses 224 to 242, Schedule 11, Clause 243, Schedule 12, Clauses 244 to 248; remaining New Clauses, New Schedules and remaining proceedings on the Bill (so far as not previously concluded). 5.00 pm'.

Welcome back, Mr. Griffiths. I understand that you will be with us for both sittings today.

The Programming Sub-Committee met last night for a final time and agreed the order of proceedings for today and next week. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and for Northavon (Mr. Webb) for their agreement. I would also like to thank them for their forbearance on the subject of Government amendments.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne asked for information on further Government amendments to be tabled in Committee, which I am happy to give. It is our intention to table this week—which I think will mean tomorrow—a group of eight new clauses covering a second element of moral hazard. They will deal with financial support arrangements. We also hope to table a new clause dealing with cash-equivalent transfers for early leavers. If, for any reason, that proves impossible to table this week, we will introduce that new clause on Report rather than keep the Committee waiting.

Those are the only remaining Government amendments for consideration by this Committee, subject to any further new clauses that Opposition Members may wish to table. It may be possible to conclude our deliberations on Tuesday next week, although we have Thursday to fall back on if that is not the case. We have previously given details to hon. Members about amendments to be tabled on Report, and those have not changed. We will also be introducing the final element of our moral hazard provisions at that stage. We will continue to provide briefing on all new clauses for the remainder of the Committee stage and on Report.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

Good Morning, Mr. Griffiths. I am grateful to the Minister for Pensions for that information. I am sure that everybody from the Minister downwards is doing their best, and the Minister is good enough to talk about my forbearance, but it is wearing a little thin. As he said, if the Government table more amendments this week, they must do so today or tomorrow, and tomorrow, I am sure in common with all Committee members, I shall be in my constituency.

The real issue is that, although we have given our consent to the programme motion, would it matter if we had not? All things being equal, the Minister may be right and we will finish our proceedings on Tuesday. However, I am not committing myself to that, not least because of what I have described as the elephant in the Committee Room: how much more is to come? We will have eight new clauses on moral hazard, which is a very broad concept, as I gathered when I saw the last group of new clauses on the subject. It covers a range of issues, such as anti-avoidance, which is a strange issue. When I stumbled across the possibility of dealing with this Bill many months ago, the issue of anti-avoidance was one of the first things that people mentioned to me, so it is slightly odd that it is taking so long to table these new clauses—although I accept that highly technical, legal issues are involved.

For my part, I think that Tuesday is something to aim for, but let us see what happens. We must reserve judgment on the eight new clauses on moral hazard and the new issue of a cash-equivalent transfer for early leavers. It is not for me to tell the Government how to conduct their business, but if we are up against it timewise, it might be sensible to deal with that issue on Report. However, Report is beginning to get a bit crowded in terms of both new and existing issues. I will give notice that the provisional intention of Conservative Members is to press for two full days on Report. Of course, that is subject to seeing all the Government's further amendments and new clauses after the end of the Committee stage.

I assume that when we get those eight new clauses they will be accompanied by some explanatory notes almost instantaneously, because such notes are helpful and they are reliably getting through to us, so let us ask for them.

There is a further issue, which was raised at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday. I was interested that in response to a question about using unclaimed assets to compensate the 60,000 pensioners who have

already lost out on their pensions that was put by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), the Prime Minister said:

''we are actively considering the position . . . We are examining what we can do in such special cases, and, in the context of the current debate on pension protection issues and legislation''.—[Official Report, 21 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 293.]

It is nice to be noticed by the Prime Minister. I might have been forgiven for thinking that he might be wholly oblivious to all the work that we are doing in this Committee, but it is nice to have a nod from such an imperial quarter.

Assuming that the Department for Work and Pensions is still in the loop on all of that, I must ask what plans the Minister and his colleagues have to table further new clauses or amendments on that issue. It is clearly something that has overshadowed the central feature of the Bill, which is the pension protection fund, because the Bill is not designed to be retrospective. It would be nice to know whether the Government have any such plans, because that would open up a new area of debate either in Committee or on Report. Subject to that, we are happy to consent to the—[Interruption.] It is amazing; bottles are being knocked over on both sides of the Committee. Subject to the point that I raised, we are happy to consent to the motion.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

As the Minister said, we have discussed the matter and essentially the motion before us simply allows us until the end of next Thursday to get through everything. He has given us a further steer on what additional new clauses there will be. I am slightly startled because from our original discussions we did not think that anything else would be coming, but then it became clear that it was and now we are to get another eight clauses on moral hazard and something else as well, although that might not come in time.

As the hon. Member for Eastbourne said, the Minister's announcement raises the important issue of the proper scrutiny of those new clauses; for example, the cash-equivalent transfers material was not available to the Committee. My worry is that Report will inevitably be dominated by one or two big issues and that, absurdly, a host of Government new clauses will be nodded through without any debate. That might not even be what the Government want. I wonder whether I can encourage the Minister to contact the usual channels and to ensure that the further debate on the new clauses—particularly if we do not get to discuss them in Committee—is sub-timetabled so that we have some guaranteed time to examine that new material. I do not think that we would be doing anybody a favour if we did not scrutinise it properly. Even the Government and those who have worked so hard on drafting those new clauses might feel slightly aggrieved if in the entire process of going through this House the clauses did not even get discussed because Report was dominated by one or two other, more political, issues. That would not be in the interests of good pensions law.

I hope that the Minister will use such influence as he has to ensure that material that we do not reach in the scope of this Committee is allocated defined time for our further scrutiny that cannot be eaten into. Having registered that concern I do not have any objection to the programme motion.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

I am grateful for the support of colleagues opposite. The forbearance of the hon. Member for Eastbourne is wearing thin, but there is still a sliver of it, and I am grateful for that.

We recognise that there is much work to do on Report, and I am sure that the usual channels will bear that in mind when it comes to deciding the time required and the ordering of that time; I note the suggestion of the hon. Member for Northavon on that. We will do our utmost to ensure that amendments and explanatory notes reach members of the Committee in as timely a fashion as possible.

On the points about the Prime Minister's comments yesterday, I remind the Committee that he said:

''We are examining what we can do in such special cases, and, in the context of the current debate on pension protection issues and legislation, I hope that we can come forward with the solution.''—[Official Report, 21 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 293.]

The Prime Minister reconfirmed that we are taking the issue seriously and are giving it active consideration. At times, it has been uppermost in our minds in Committee, and I expect that hon. Members will wish to return to the subject later.

We are not pretending that the problem is easy to solve. Everyone has acknowledged the complexity of circumstances that have led to some people losing pension rights and facing a bleak future on retirement, despite having saved in their company pension scheme. We are currently working with trustees to gather data about schemes and establish the number of people who might be in that situation. Of course, we have been working on that issue for some time. We will need to work closely with partners across industry and in the unions on any possible way forward. We will come back to the House when we have a better view.

Meanwhile, I stress that, with the PPF, we are seeking to avoid the risk of an even bigger tragedy for individuals in future. We should certainly deliver protection for workers through the PPF, and we owe it to everyone to deliver good law. That is very much what we are about. My hope is the same as the Prime Minister's: that we will be able to come forward with a solution for those workers suffering the legacy of past failure. However, we are not yet there, and we do not want to promise a solution that it might be impossible to deliver.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I am reassured to hear that the Minister is on the same wavelength as the Prime Minister, given that the Cabinet was apparently not even consulted about the decision to hold an EU referendum. I am pleased to hear that he has the ear of the Prime Minister.

I would like to press the Minister slightly further. The Prime Minister, who presumably chooses his words carefully, said:

''in the context of the current debate on pension protection issues and legislation''.—[Official Report, 21 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 293.]

Today, all the commentators are taking the line that he must have meant that the issue would come up on Report, although the Prime Minister did not use the word. Indeed, I would imagine that there would be a substantial Back-Bench rebellion if it was not tackled at that stage. I press the Minister on that, because it is germane to our debate, and to the usual channels' discussions later about how long will be required for Report.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

We have had the Prime Minister's statement, and I made my own short statement because of the interest that has been generated by what the Prime Minister said yesterday at Question Time. The hon. Member for Eastbourne may press me, but this Minister is not for pressing, on this occasion.

Photo of Mr Huw Edwards Mr Huw Edwards Labour, Monmouth

I am sure that what my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have said will reassure Committee members and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), who has campaigned seriously on behalf of the Allied Steel and Wire workers. One or two of my constituents were ASW workers, too, and they may be reassured by what the Minister said today. I hope that he is able to find the solution that the Prime Minister says is being sought.

Question put and agreed to.